"What's the meaning of this, I wonder?" pondered Lisa, as she again made her way to the chapel of Saint Agnes. "The hussy must have been poisoning some one or other."
Abbe Roustan was at last coming out of his confessional. He was a handsome man, of some forty years of age, with a smiling, kindly air. When he recognised Madame Quenu he grasped her hand, called her "dear lady," and conducted her to the vestry, where, taking off his surplice, he told her that he would be entirely at her service in a moment. They returned, the priest in his cassock, bareheaded, and Lisa strutting along in her shawl, and paced up and down in front of the side-chapels adjacent to the Rue du Jour. They conversed together in low tones. The sunlight was departing from the stained windows, the church was growing dark, and the retreating footsteps of the last worshippers sounded but faintly over the flagstones.
Lisa explained her doubts and scruples to Abbe Roustan. There had never been any question of religion between them; she never confessed, but merely consulted him in cases of difficulty, because he was shrewd and discreet, and she preferred him, as she sometimes said, to shady business men redolent of the galleys. The abbe, on his side, manifested inexhaustible complaisance. He looked up points of law for her in the Code, pointed out profitable investments, resolved her moral difficulties with great tact, recommended tradespeople to her, invariably having an answer ready however diverse and complicated her requirements might be. And he supplied all this help in a natural matter-of-fact way, without ever introducing the Deity into his talk, or seeking to obtain any advantage either for himself or the cause of religion. A word of thanks and a smile sufficed him. He seemed glad to have an opportunity of obliging the handsome Madame Quenu, of whom his housekeeper often spoke to him in terms of praise, as of a woman who was highly respected in the neighbourhood.
Their consultation that afternoon was of a peculiarly delicate nature. Lisa was anxious to know what steps she might legitimately take, as a woman of honour, with respect to her brother-in-law. Had she a right to keep a watch upon him, and to do what she could to prevent him from compromising her husband, her daughter, and herself? And then how far might she go in circumstances of pressing danger? She did not bluntly put these questions to the abbe, but asked them with such skilful circumlocutions that he was able to discuss the matter without entering into personalities. He brought forward arguments on both sides of the question, but the conclusion he came to was that a person of integrity was entitled, indeed bound, to prevent evil, and was justified in using whatever means might be necessary to ensure the triumph of that which was right and proper.
"That is my opinion, dear lady," he said in conclusion. "The question of means is always a very grave one. It is a snare in which souls of average virtue often become entangled. But I know your scrupulous conscience. Deliberate carefully over each step you think of taking, and if it contains nothing repugnant to you, go on boldly. Pure natures have the marvelous gift of purifying all that they touch."
Then, changing his tone of voice, he continued: "Pray give my kind regards to Monsieur Quenu. I'll come in to kiss my dear little Pauline some time when I'm passing. And now good-bye, dear lady; remember that I'm always at your service."
Thereupon he returned to the vestry. Lisa, on her way out, was curious to see if Claire was still praying, but the girl had gone back to her eels and carp; and in front of the Lady-chapel, which was already shrouded in darkness, there was now but a litter of chairs overturned by the ardent vehemence of the woman who had knelt there.
When the handsome Lisa again crossed the square, La Normande, who had been watching for her exit from the church, recognised her in the twilight by the rotundity of her skirts.
"Good gracious!" she exclaimed, "she's been more than an hour in there! When the priests set about cleansing her of her sins, the choir-boys have to form in line to pass the buckets of filth and empty them in the street!"
The next morning Lisa went straight up to Florent's bedroom and settled herself there with perfect equanimity. She felt certain that she would not be disturbed, and, moreover, she had made up her mind to tell a falsehood and say that she had come to see if the linen was clean, should Florent by any chance return. Whilst in the shop, however, she had observed him busily engaged in the fish market. Seating herself in front of the little table, she pulled out the drawer, placed it upon her knees, and began to examine its contents, taking the greatest care to restore them to their original positions.
First of all she came upon the opening chapters of the work on Cayenne; then upon the drafts of Florent's various plans and projects, his schemes for converting the Octroi duties into taxes upon sales, for reforming the administrative system of the markets, and all the others. These pages of small writing, which she set herself to read, bored her extremely, and she was about to restore the drawer to its place, feeling convinced that Florent concealed the proofs of his wicked designs elsewhere, and already contemplating a searching visitation of his mattress, when she discovered a photograph of La Normande in an envelope. The impression was rather dark. La Normande was standing up with her right arm resting on a broken column. Decked out with all her jewels, and attired in a new silk dress, the fish-girl was smiling impudently, and Lisa, at the sight, forgot all about her brother-in-law, her fears, and the purpose for which she had come into the room. She became quite absorbed in her examination of the portrait, as often happens when one woman scrutinises the photograph of another at her ease, without fear of being seen. Never before had she so favourable an opportunity to study her rival. She scrutinised her hair, her nose, her mouth; held the photograph at a distance, and then brought it closer again. And, finally, with compressed lips, she read on the back of it, in a big, ugly scrawl: "Louise, to her friend, Florent." This quite scandalised her; to her mind it was a confession, and she felt a strong impulse to take possession of the photograph, and keep it as a weapon against her enemy. However, she slowly replaced it in the envelope on coming to the conclusion that this course would be wrong, and reflecting that she would always know where to find it should she want it again.
Then, as she again began turning over the loose sheets of paper, it occurred to her to look at the back end of the drawer, where Florent had relegated Augustine's needles and thread; and there, between the missal and the Dream-book, she discovered what she sought, some extremely compromising memoranda, simply screened from observation by a wrapper of grey paper.
That idea of an insurrection, of the overthrow of the Empire by means of an armed rising, which Logre had one evening propounded at Monsieur Lebigre's, had slowly ripened in Florent's feverish brain. He soon grew to see a duty, a mission in it. Therein undoubtedly lay the task to which his escape from Cayenne and his return to Paris predestined him. Believing in a call to avenge his leanness upon the city which wallowed in food while the upholders of right and equity were racked by hunger in exile, he took upon himself the duties of a justiciary, and dreamt of rising up, even in the midst of those markets, to sweep away the reign of gluttony and drunkenness. In a sensitive nature like his, this idea quickly took root. Everything about him assumed exaggerated proportions, the wildest fancies possessed him. He imagined that the markets had been conscious of his arrival, and had seized hold of him that they might enervate him and poison him with their stenches. Then, too, Lisa wanted to cast a spell over him, and for two or three days at a time he would avoid her, as though she were some dissolving agency which would destroy all his power of will should he approach too closely. However, these paroxysms of puerile fear, these wild surgings of his rebellious brain, always ended in thrills of the gentlest tenderness, with yearnings to love and be loved, which he concealed with a boyish shame.
It was more especially in the evening that his mind became blurred by all his wild imaginings. Depressed by his day's work, but shunning sleep from a covert fear—the fear of the annihilation it brought with it—he would remain later than ever at Monsieur Lebigre's, or at the Mehudins'; and on his return home he still refrained from going to bed, and sat up writing and preparing for the great insurrection. By slow degrees he devised a complete system of organisation. He divided Paris into twenty sections, one for each arrondissement. Each section would have a chief, a sort of general, under whose orders there were to be twenty lieutenants commanding twenty companies of affiliated associates. Every week, among the chiefs, there would be a consultation, which was to be held in a different place each time; and, the better to ensure secrecy and discretion, the associates would only come in contact with their respective lieutenants, these alone communicating with the chiefs of the sections. It also occurred to Florent that it would be as well that the companies should believe themselves charged with imaginary missions, as a means of putting the police upon a wrong scent.
As for the employment of the insurrectionary forces, that would be all simplicity. It would, of course, be necessary to wait till the companies were quite complete, and then advantage would be taken of the first public commotion. They would doubtless only have a certain number of guns used for sporting purposes in their possession, so they would commence by seizing the police stations and guard-houses, disarming the soldiers of the line; resorting to violence as little as possible, and inviting the men to make common cause with the people. Afterwards they would march upon the Corps Legislatif, and thence to the Hotel de Ville. This plan, to which Florent returned night after night, as though it were some dramatic scenario which relieved his over-excited nervous system, was as yet simply jotted down on scraps of paper, full of erasures, which showed how the writer had felt his way, and revealed each successive phase of his scientific yet puerile conception. When Lisa had glanced through the notes, without understanding some of them, she remained there trembling with fear; afraid to touch them further lest they should explode in her hands like live shells.
A last memorandum frightened her more than any of the others. It was a half sheet of paper on which Florent had sketched the distinguishing insignia which the chiefs and the lieutenants were to wear. By the side of these were rough drawings of the standards which the different companies were to carry; and notes in pencil even described what colours the banners should assume. The chiefs were to wear red scarves, and the lieutenants red armlets.
To Lisa this seemed like an immediate realisation of the rising; she saw all the men with their red badges marching past the pork shop, firing bullets into her mirrors and marble, and carrying off sausages and chitterlings from the window. The infamous projects of her brother-in-law were surely directed against herself—against her own happiness. She closed the drawer and looked round the room, reflecting that it was she herself who had provided this man with a home—that he slept between her sheets and used her furniture. And she was especially exasperated at his keeping his abominable infernal machine in that little deal table which she herself had used at Uncle Gradelle's before her marriage—a perfectly innocent, rickety little table.
For a while she stood thinking what she should do. In the first place, it was useless to say anything to Quenu. For a moment it occurred to her to provoke an explanation with Florent, but she dismissed that idea, fearing lest he would only go and perpetrate his crime elsewhere, and maliciously make a point of compromising them. Then gradually growing somewhat calmer, she came to the conclusion that her best plan would be to keep a careful watch over her brother-in-law. It would be time enough to take further steps at the first sign of danger. She already had quite sufficient evidence to send him back to the galleys.
On returning to the shop again, she found Augustine in a state of great excitement. Little Pauline had disappeared more than half an hour before, and to Lisa's anxious questions the young woman could only reply: "I don't know where she can have got to, madame. She was on the pavement there with a little boy. I was watching them, and then I had to cut some ham for a gentleman, and I never saw them again."
"I'll wager it was Muche!" cried Lisa. "Ah, the young scoundrel!"
It was, indeed, Muche who had enticed Pauline away. The little girl, who was wearing a new blue-striped frock that day for the first time, had been anxious to exhibit it, and had accordingly taken her stand outside the shop, manifesting great propriety of bearing, and compressing her lips with the grave expression of a little woman of six who is afraid of soiling her clothes. Her short and stiffly-starched petticoats stood out like the skirts of a ballet girl, allowing a full view of her tightly stretched white stockings and little sky-blue boots. Her pinafore, which hung low about her neck, was finished off at the shoulders with an edging of embroidery, below which appeared her pretty little arms, bare and rosy. She had small turquoise rings in her ears, a cross at her neck, a blue velvet ribbon in her well-brushed hair; and she displayed all her mother's plumpness and softness—the gracefulness, indeed, of a new doll.
Muche had caught sight of her from the market, where he was amusing himself by dropping little dead fishes into the gutter, following them along the kerb as the water carried them away, and declaring that they were swimming. However, the sight of Pauline standing in front of the shop and looking so smart and pretty made him cross over to her, capless as he was, with his blouse ragged, his trousers slipping down, and his whole appearance suggestive of a seven-year-old street-arab. His mother had certainly forbidden him to play any more with "that fat booby of a girl who was stuffed by her parents till she almost burst"; so he stood hesitating for a moment, but at last came up to Pauline, and wanted to feel her pretty striped frock. The little girl, who had at first felt flattered, then put on a prim air and stepped back, exclaiming in a tone of displeasure: "Leave me alone. Mother says I'm not to have anything to do with you."
This brought a laugh to the lips of Muche, who was a wily, enterprising young scamp.
"What a little flat you are!" he retorted. "What does it matter what your mother says? Let's go and play at shoving each other, eh?"
He doubtless nourished some wicked idea of dirtying the neat little girl; but she, on seeing him prepare to give her a push in the back, retreated as though about to return inside the shop. Muche thereupon adopted a flattering tone like a born cajoler.
"You silly! I didn't mean it," said he. "How nice you look like that! Is that little cross your mother's?"
Pauline perked herself up, and replied that it was her own, whereupon Muche gently led her to the corner of the Rue Pirouette, touching her skirts the while and expressing his astonishment at their wonderful stiffness. All this pleased the little girl immensely. She had been very much vexed at not receiving any notice while she was exhibiting herself outside the shop. However, in spite of all Muche's blandishments, she still refused to leave the footway.
"You stupid fatty!" thereupon exclaimed the youngster, relapsing into coarseness. "I'll squat you down in the gutter if you don't look out, Miss Fine-airs!"
The girl was dreadfully alarmed. Muche had caught hold of her by the hand; but, recognising his mistake in policy, he again put on a wheedling air, and began to fumble in his pocket.
"I've got a sou," said he.
The sight of the coin had a soothing effect upon Pauline. The boy held up the sou with the tips of his fingers, and the temptation to follow it proved so great that the girl at last stepped down into the roadway. Muche's diplomacy was eminently successful.
"What do you like best?" he asked.
Pauline gave no immediate answer. She could not make up her mind; there were so many things that she liked. Muche, however, ran over a whole list of dainties—liquorice, molasses, gum-balls, and powdered sugar. The powdered sugar made the girl ponder. One dipped one's fingers into it and sucked them; it was very nice. For a while she gravely considered the matter. Then, at last making up her mind, she said:
"No, I like the mixed screws the best."
Muche thereupon took hold of her arm, and she unresistingly allowed him to lead her away. They crossed the Rue Rambuteau, followed the broad footway skirting the markets, and went as far as a grocer's shop in the Rue de la Cossonnerie which was celebrated for its mixed screws. These mixed screws are small screws of paper in which grocers put up all sorts of damaged odds and ends, broken sugar-plums, fragments of crystallised chestnuts—all the doubtful residuum of their jars of sweets. Muche showed himself very gallant, allowed Pauline to choose the screw—a blue one—paid his sou, and did not attempt to dispossess her of the sweets. Outside, on the footway, she emptied the miscellaneous collection of scraps into both pockets of her pinafore; and they were such little pockets that they were quite filled. Then in delight she began to munch the fragments one by one, wetting her fingers to catch the fine sugary dust, with such effect that she melted the scraps of sweets, and the pockets of her pinafore soon showed two brownish stains. Muche laughed slily to himself. He had his arm about the girl's waist, and rumpled her frock at his ease whilst leading her round the corner of the Rue Pierre Lescot, in the direction of the Place des Innocents.
"You'll come and play now, won't you?" he asked. "That's nice what you've got in your pockets, ain't it? You see that I didn't want to do you any harm, you big silly!"
Thereupon he plunged his own fingers into her pockets, and they entered the square together. To this spot, no doubt, he had all along intended to lure his victim. He did the honours of the square as though it were his own private property, and indeed it was a favourite haunt of his, where he often larked about for whole afternoons. Pauline had never before strayed so far from home, and would have wept like an abducted damsel had it not been that her pockets were full of sweets. The fountain in the middle of the flowered lawn was sending sheets of water down its tiers of basins, whilst, between the pilasters above, Jean Goujon's nymphs, looking very white beside the dingy grey stonework, inclined their urns and displayed their nude graces in the grimy air of the Saint Denis quarter. The two children walked round the fountain, watching the water fall into the basins, and taking an interest in the grass, with thoughts, no doubt, of crossing the central lawn, or gliding into the clumps of holly and rhododendrons that bordered the railings of the square. Little Muche, however, who had now effectually rumpled the back of the pretty frock, said with his sly smile:
"Let's play at throwing sand at each other, eh?"
Pauline had no will of her own left; and they began to throw the sand at each other, keeping their eyes closed meanwhile. The sand made its way in at the neck of the girl's low bodice, and trickled down into her stockings and boots. Muche was delighted to see the white pinafore become quite yellow. But he doubtless considered that it was still far too clean.
"Let's go and plant trees, shall we?" he exclaimed suddenly. "I know how to make such pretty gardens."
"Really, gardens!" murmured Pauline full of admiration.
Then, as the keeper of the square happened to be absent, Muche told her to make some holes in one of the borders; and dropping on her knees in the middle of the soft mould, and leaning forward till she lay at full length on her stomach, she dug her pretty little arms into the ground. He, meantime, began to hunt for scraps of wood, and broke off branches. These were the garden-trees which he planted in the holes that Pauline made. He invariably complained, however, that the holes were not deep enough, and rated the girl as though she were an idle workman and he an indignant master. When she at last got up, she was black from head to foot. Her hair was full of mould, her face was smeared with it, she looked such a sight with her arms as black as a coalheaver's that Muche clapped his hands with glee, and exclaimed: "Now we must water the trees. They won't grow, you know, if we don't water them."
That was the finishing stroke. They went outside the square, scooped the gutter-water up in the palms of their hands, and then ran back to pour it over the bits of wood. On the way, Pauline, who was so fat that she couldn't run properly, let the water trickle between her fingers on to her frock, so that by the time of her sixth journey she looked as if she had been rolled in the gutter. Muche chuckled with delight on beholding her dreadful condition. He made her sit down beside him under a rhododendron near the garden they had made, and told her that the trees were already beginning to grow. He had taken hold of her hand and called her his little wife.
"You're not sorry now that you came, are you," he asked, "instead of mooning about on the pavement, where there was nothing to do? I know all sorts of fun we can have in the streets; you must come with me again. You will, won't you? But you mustn't say anything to your mother, mind. If you say a word to her, I'll pull your hair the next time I come past your shop."
Pauline consented to everything; and then, as a last attention, Muche filled both pockets of her pinafore with mould. However, all the sweets were finished, and the girl began to get uneasy, and ceased playing. Muche thereupon started pinching her, and she burst into tears, sobbing that she wanted to go away. But at this the lad only grinned, and played the bully, threatening that he would not take her home at all. Then she grew terribly alarmed, and sobbed and gasped like a maiden in the power of a libertine. Muche would certainly have ended by punching her in order to stop her row, had not a shrill voice, the voice of Mademoiselle Saget, exclaimed, close by: "Why, I declare it's Pauline! Leave her alone, you wicked young scoundrel!"
Then the old maid took the girl by the hand, with endless expressions of amazement at the pitiful condition of her clothes. Muche showed no alarm, but followed them, chuckling to himself, and declaring that it was Pauline who had wanted to come with him, and had tumbled down.
Mademoiselle Saget was a regular frequenter of the Square des Innocents. Every afternoon she would spend a good hour there to keep herself well posted in the gossip of the common people. On either side there is a long crescent of benches placed end to end; and on these the poor folks who stifle in the hovels of the neighbouring narrow streets assemble in crowds. There are withered, chilly-looking old women in tumbled caps, and young ones in loose jackets and carelessly fastened skirts, with bare heads and tired, faded faces, eloquent of the wretchedness of their lives. There are some men also: tidy old buffers, porters in greasy jackets, and equivocal-looking individuals in black silk hats, while the foot-path is overrun by a swarm of youngsters dragging toy carts without wheels about, filling pails with sand, and screaming and fighting; a dreadful crew, with ragged clothes and dirty noses, teeming in the sunshine like vermin.
Mademoiselle Saget was so slight and thin that she always managed to insinuate herself into a place on one of the benches. She listened to what was being said, and started a conversation with her neighbour, some sallow-faced workingman's wife, who sat mending linen, from time to time producing handkerchiefs and stockings riddled with holes from a little basket patched up with string. Moreover, Mademoiselle Saget had plenty of acquaintances here. Amidst the excruciating squalling of the children, and the ceaseless rumble of the traffic in the Rue Saint Denis, she took part in no end of gossip, everlasting tales about the tradesmen of the neighbourhood, the grocers, the butchers, and the bakers, enough, indeed, to fill the columns of a local paper, and the whole envenomed by refusals of credit and covert envy, such as is always harboured by the poor. From these wretched creatures she also obtained the most disgusting revelations, the gossip of low lodging-houses and doorkeepers' black-holes, all the filthy scandal of the neighbourhood, which tickled her inquisitive appetite like hot spice.
As she sat with her face turned towards the markets, she had immediately in front of her the square and its three blocks of houses, into the windows of which her eyes tried to pry. She seemed to gradually rise and traverse the successive floors right up to the garret skylights. She stared at the curtains; based an entire drama on the appearance of a head between two shutters; and, by simply gazing at the facades, ended by knowing the history of all the dwellers in these houses. The Baratte Restaurant, with its wine shop, its gilt wrought-iron marquise, forming a sort of terrace whence peeped the foliage of a few plants in flower-pots, and its four low storeys, all painted and decorated, had an especial interest for her. She gazed at its yellow columns standing out against a background of tender blue, at the whole of its imitation temple-front daubed on the facade of a decrepit, tumble-down house, crowned at the summit by a parapet of painted zinc. Behind the red-striped window-blinds she espied visions of nice little lunches, delicate suppers, and uproarious, unlimited orgies. And she did not hesitate to invent lies about the place. It was there, she declared, that Florent came to gorge with those two hussies, the Mehudins, on whom he lavished his money.
However, Pauline cried yet louder than before when the old maid took hold of her hand. Mademoiselle Saget at first led her towards the gate of the square; but before she got there she seemed to change her mind; for she sat down at the end of a bench and tried to pacify the child.
"Come, now, give over crying, or the policeman will lock you up," she said to Pauline. "I'll take you home safely. You know me, don't you? I'm a good friend. Come, come, let me see how prettily you can smile."
The child, however, was choking with sobs and wanted to go away. Mademoiselle Saget thereupon quietly allowed her to continue weeping, reserving further remarks till she should have finished. The poor little creature was shivering all over; her petticoats and stockings were wet through, and as she wiped her tears away with her dirty hands she plastered the whole of her face with earth to the very tips of her ears. When at last she became a little calmer the old maid resumed in a caressing tone: "Your mamma isn't unkind, is she? She's very fond of you, isn't she?"
"Oh, yes, indeed," replied Pauline, still sobbing.
"And your papa, he's good to you, too, isn't he? He doesn't flog you, or quarrel with your mother, does he? What do they talk about when they go to bed?"
"Oh, I don't know. I'm asleep then."
"Do they talk about your cousin Florent?"
"I don't know."
Mademoiselle Saget thereupon assumed a severe expression, and got up as if about to go away.
"I'm afraid you are a little story-teller," she said. "Don't you know that it's very wicked to tell stories? I shall go away and leave you, if you tell me lies, and then Muche will come back and pinch you."
Pauline began to cry again at the threat of being abandoned. "Be quiet, be quiet, you wicked little imp!" cried the old maid shaking her. "There, there, now, I won't go away. I'll buy you a stick of barley-sugar; yes, a stick of barley-sugar! So you don't love your cousin Florent, eh?"
"No, mamma says he isn't good."
"Ah, then, so you see your mother does say something."
"One night when I was in bed with Mouton—I sleep with Mouton sometimes, you know—I heard her say to father, 'Your brother has only escaped from the galleys to take us all back with him there.'"
Mademoiselle Saget gave vent to a faint cry, and sprang to her feet, quivering all over. A ray of light had just broken upon her. Then without a word she caught hold of Pauline's hand and made her run till they reached the pork shop, her lips meanwhile compressed by an inward smile, and her eyes glistening with keen delight. At the corner of the Rue Pirouette, Muche, who had so far followed them, amused at seeing the girl running along in her muddy stockings, prudently disappeared.
Lisa was now in a state of terrible alarm; and when she saw her daughter so bedraggled and limp, her consternation was such that she turned the child round and round, without even thinking of beating her.
"She has been with little Muche," said the old maid, in her malicious voice. "I took her away at once, and I've brought her home. I found them together in the square. I don't know what they've been up to; but that young vagabond is capable of anything."
Lisa could not find a word to say; and she did not know where to take hold of her daughter, so great was her disgust at the sight of the child's muddy boots, soiled stockings, torn skirts, and filthy face and hands. The blue velvet ribbon, the earrings, and the necklet were all concealed beneath a crust of mud. But what put the finishing touch to Lisa's exasperation was the discovery of the two pockets filled with mould. She stooped and emptied them, regardless of the pink and white flooring of the shop. And as she dragged Pauline away, she could only gasp: "Come along, you filthy thing!"
Quite enlivened by this scene, Mademoiselle Saget now hurriedly made her way across the Rue Rambuteau. Her little feet scarcely touched the ground; her joy seemed to carry her along like a breeze which fanned her with a caressing touch. She had at last found out what she had so much wanted to know! For nearly a year she had been consumed by curiosity, and now at a single stroke she had gained complete power over Florent! This was unhoped-for contentment, positive salvation, for she felt that Florent would have brought her to the tomb had she failed much longer in satisfying her curiosity about him. At present she was complete mistress of the whole neighbourhood of the markets. There was no longer any gap in her information. She could have narrated the secret history of every street, shop by shop. And thus, as she entered the fruit market, she fairly gasped with delight, in a perfect transport of pleasure.
"Hallo, Mademoiselle Saget," cried La Sarriette from her stall, "what are you smiling to yourself like that about? Have you won the grand prize in the lottery?"
"No, no. Ah, my dear, if you only knew!"
Standing there amidst her fruit, La Sarriette, in her picturesque disarray, looked charming. Frizzy hair fell over her brow like vine branches. Her bare arms and neck, indeed all the rosy flesh she showed, bloomed with the freshness of peach and cherry. She had playfully hung some cherries on her ears, black cherries which dangled against her cheeks when she stooped, shaking with merry laughter. She was eating currants, and her merriment arose from the way in which she was smearing her face with them. Her lips were bright red, glistening with the juice of the fruit, as though they had been painted and perfumed with some seraglio face-paint. A perfume of plum exhaled from her gown, while from the kerchief carelessly fastened across her breast came an odour of strawberries.
Fruits of all kinds were piled around her in her narrow stall. On the shelves at the back were rows of melons, so-called "cantaloups" swarming with wart-like knots, "maraichers" whose skin was covered with grey lace-like netting, and "culs-de-singe" displaying smooth bare bumps. In front was an array of choice fruits, carefully arranged in baskets, and showing like smooth round cheeks seeking to hide themselves, or glimpses of sweet childish faces, half veiled by leaves. Especially was this the case with the peaches, the blushing peaches of Montreuil, with skin as delicate and clear as that of northern maidens, and the yellow, sun-burnt peaches from the south, brown like the damsels of Provence. The apricots, on their beds of moss, gleamed with the hue of amber or with that sunset glow which so warmly colours the necks of brunettes at the nape, just under the little wavy curls which fall below the chignon. The cherries, ranged one by one, resembled the short lips of smiling Chinese girls; the Montmorencies suggested the dumpy mouths of buxom women; the English ones were longer and graver-looking; the common black ones seemed as though they had been bruised and crushed by kisses; while the white-hearts, with their patches of rose and white, appeared to smile with mingled merriment and vexation. Then piles of apples and pears, built up with architectural symmetry, often in pyramids, displayed the ruddy glow of budding breasts and the gleaming sheen of shoulders, quite a show of nudity, lurking modestly behind a screen of fern-leaves. There were all sorts of varieties—little red ones so tiny that they seemed to be yet in the cradle, shapeless "rambours" for baking, "calvilles" in light yellow gowns, sanguineous-looking "Canadas," blotched "chataignier" apples, fair freckled rennets and dusky russets. Then came the pears—the "blanquettes," the "British queens," the "Beurres," the "messirejeans," and the "duchesses"—some dumpy, some long and tapering, some with slender necks, and others with thick-set shoulders, their green and yellow bellies picked out at times with a splotch of carmine. By the side of these the transparent plums resembled tender, chlorotic virgins; the greengages and the Orleans plums paled as with modest innocence, while the mirabelles lay like golden beads of a rosary forgotten in a box amongst sticks of vanilla. And the strawberries exhaled a sweet perfume—a perfume of youth—especially those little ones which are gathered in the woods, and which are far more aromatic than the large ones grown in gardens, for these breathe an insipid odour suggestive of the watering-pot. Raspberries added their fragrance to the pure scent. The currants—red, white, and black—smiled with a knowing air; whilst the heavy clusters of grapes, laden with intoxication, lay languorously at the edges of their wicker baskets, over the sides of which dangled some of the berries, scorched by the hot caresses of the voluptuous sun.
It was there that La Sarriette lived in an orchard, as it were, in an atmosphere of sweet, intoxicating scents. The cheaper fruits—the cherries, plums, and strawberries—were piled up in front of her in paper-lined baskets, and the juice coming from their bruised ripeness stained the stall-front, and steamed, with a strong perfume, in the heat. She would feel quite giddy on those blazing July afternoons when the melons enveloped her with a powerful, vaporous odour of musk; and then with her loosened kerchief, fresh as she was with the springtide of life, she brought sudden temptation to all who saw her. It was she—it was her arms and necks which gave that semblance of amorous vitality to her fruit. On the stall next to her an old woman, a hideous old drunkard, displayed nothing but wrinkled apples, pears as flabby as herself, and cadaverous apricots of a witch-like sallowness. La Sarriette's stall, however, spoke of love and passion. The cherries looked like the red kisses of her bright lips; the silky peaches were not more delicate than her neck; to the plums she seemed to have lent the skin from her brow and chin; while some of her own crimson blood coursed through the veins of the currants. All the scents of the avenue of flowers behind her stall were but insipid beside the aroma of vitality which exhaled from her open baskets and falling kerchief.
That day she was quite intoxicated by the scent of a large arrival of mirabelle plums, which filled the market. She could plainly see that Mademoiselle Saget had learnt some great piece of news, and she wished to make her talk. But the old maid stamped impatiently whilst she repeated: "No, no; I've no time. I'm in a great hurry to see Madame Lecoeur. I've just learnt something and no mistake. You can come with me, if you like."
As a matter of fact, she had simply gone through the fruit market for the purpose of enticing La Sarriette to go with her. The girl could not refuse temptation. Monsieur Jules, clean-shaven and as fresh as a cherub, was seated there, swaying to and fro on his chair.
"Just look after the stall for a minute, will you?" La Sarriette said to him. "I'll be back directly."
Jules, however, got up and called after her, in a thick voice: "Not I; no fear! I'm off! I'm not going to wait an hour for you, as I did the other day. And, besides, those cursed plums of yours quite make my head ache."
Then he calmly strolled off, with his hands in his pockets, and the stall was left to look after itself. Mademoiselle Saget went so fast that La Sarriette had to run. In the butter pavilion a neighbour of Madame Lecoeur's told them that she was below in the cellar; and so, whilst La Sarriette went down to find her, the old maid installed herself amidst the cheeses.
The cellar under the butter market is a very gloomy spot. The rows of storerooms are protected by a very fine wire meshing, as a safeguard against fire; and the gas jets, which are very few and far between, glimmer like yellow splotches destitute of radiance in the heavy, malordorous atmosphere beneath the low vault. Madame Lecoeur, however, was at work on her butter at one of the tables placed parallel with the Rue Berger, and here a pale light filtered through the vent-holes. The tables, which are continually sluiced with a flood of water from the taps, are as white as though they were quite new. With her back turned to the pump in the rear, Madame Lecoeur was kneading her butter in a kind of oak box. She took some of different sorts which lay beside her, and mixed the varieties together, correcting one by another, just as is done in the blending of wines. Bent almost double, and showing sharp, bony shoulders, and arms bared to the elbows, as scraggy and knotted as pea-rods, she dug her fists into the greasy paste in front of her, which was assuming a whitish and chalky appearance. It was trying work, and she heaved a sigh at each fresh effort.
"Mademoiselle Saget wants to speak to you, aunt," said La Sarriette.
Madame Lecoeur stopped her work, and pulled her cap over her hair with her greasy fingers, seemingly quite careless of staining it. "I've nearly finished. Ask her to wait a moment," she said.
"She's got something very particular to tell you," continued La Sarriette.
"I won't be more than a minute, my dear."
Then she again plunged her arms into the butter, which buried them up to the elbows. Previously softened in warm water, it covered Madame Lecoeur's parchment-like skin as with an oily film, and threw the big purple veins that streaked her flesh into strong relief. La Sarriette was quite disgusted by the sight of those hideous arms working so frantically amidst the melting mass. However, she could recall the time when her own pretty little hands had manipulated the butter for whole afternoons at a time. It had even been a sort of almond-paste to her, a cosmetic which had kept her skin white and her nails delicately pink; and even now her slender fingers retained the suppleness it had endowed them with.
"I don't think that butter of yours will be very good, aunt," she continued, after a pause. "Some of the sorts seem much too strong."
"I'm quite aware of that," replied Madame Lecoeur, between a couple of groans. "But what can I do? I must use everything up. There are some folks who insist upon having butter cheap, and so cheap butter must be made for them. Oh! it's always quite good enough for those who buy it."
La Sarriette reflected that she would hardly care to eat butter which had been worked by her aunt's arms. Then she glanced at a little jar full of a sort of reddish dye. "Your colouring is too pale," she said.
This colouring-matter—"raucourt," as the Parisians call it is used to give the butter a fine yellow tint. The butter women imagine that its composition is known only to themselves, and keep it very secret. However, it is merely made from anotta;[*] though a composition of carrots and marigold is at times substituted for it.
[*] Anotta, which is obtained from the pulp surrounding the seeds of the Bixa Orellana, is used for a good many purposes besides the colouring of butter and cheese. It frequently enters into the composition of chocolate, and is employed to dye nankeen. Police court proceedings have also shown that it is well known to the London milkmen, who are in the habit of adding water to their merchandise. —Translator.
"Come, do be quick!" La Sarriette now exclaimed, for she was getting impatient, and was, moreover, no longer accustomed to the malodorous atmosphere of the cellar. "Mademoiselle Saget will be going. I fancy she's got something very important to tell you abut my uncle Gavard."
On hearing this, Madame Lecoeur abruptly ceased working. She at once abandoned both butter and dye, and did not even wait to wipe her arms. With a slight tap of her hand she settled her cap on her head again, and made her way up the steps, at her niece's heels, anxiously repeating: "Do you really think that she'll have gone away?"
She was reassured, however, on catching sight of Mademoiselle Saget amidst the cheeses. The old maid had taken good care not to go away before Madame Lecoeur's arrival. The three women seated themselves at the far end of the stall, crowding closely together, and their faces almost touching one another. Mademoiselle Saget remained silent for two long minutes, and then, seeing that the others were burning with curiosity, she began, in her shrill voice: "You know that Florent! Well, I can tell you now where he comes from."
For another moment she kept them in suspense; and then, in a deep, melodramatic voice, she said: "He comes from the galleys!"
The cheeses were reeking around the three women. On the two shelves at the far end of the stall were huge masses of butter: Brittany butters overflowing from baskets; Normandy butters, wrapped in canvas, and resembling models of stomachs over which some sculptor had thrown damp cloths to keep them from drying; while other great blocks had been cut into, fashioned into perpendicular rocky masses full of crevasses and valleys, and resembling fallen mountain crests gilded by the pale sun of an autumn evening.
Beneath the stall show-table, formed of a slab of red marble veined with grey, baskets of eggs gleamed with a chalky whiteness; while on layers of straw in boxes were Bondons, placed end to end, and Gournays, arranged like medals, forming darker patches tinted with green. But it was upon the table that the cheeses appeared in greatest profusion. Here, by the side of the pound-rolls of butter lying on white-beet leaves, spread a gigantic Cantal cheese, cloven here and there as by an axe; then came a golden-hued Cheshire, and next a Gruyere, resembling a wheel fallen from some barbarian chariot; whilst farther on were some Dutch cheeses, suggesting decapitated heads suffused with dry blood, and having all that hardness of skulls which in France has gained them the name of "death's heads." Amidst the heavy exhalations of these, a Parmesan set a spicy aroma. Then there came three Brie cheeses displayed on round platters, and looking like melancholy extinct moons. Two of them, very dry, were at the full; the third, in its second quarter, was melting away in a white cream, which had spread into a pool and flowed over the little wooden barriers with which an attempt had been made to arrest its course. Next came some Port Saluts, similar to antique discs, with exergues bearing their makers' names in print. A Romantour, in its tin-foil wrapper, suggested a bar of nougat or some sweet cheese astray amidst all these pungent, fermenting curds. The Roqueforts under their glass covers also had a princely air, their fat faces marbled with blue and yellow, as though they were suffering from some unpleasant malady such as attacks the wealthy gluttons who eat too many truffles. And on a dish by the side of these, the hard grey goats' milk cheeses, about the size of a child's fist, resembled the pebbles which the billy-goats send rolling down the stony paths as they clamber along ahead of their flocks. Next came the strong smelling cheeses: the Mont d'Ors, of a bright yellow hue, and exhaling a comparatively mild odour; the Troyes, very thick, and bruised at the edges, and of a far more pungent smell, recalling the dampness of a cellar; the Camemberts, suggestive of high game; the square Neufchatels, Limbourgs, Marolles, and Pont l'Eveques, each adding its own particular sharp scent to the malodorous bouquet, till it became perfectly pestilential; the Livarots, ruddy in hue, and as irritating to the throat as sulphur fumes; and, lastly, stronger than all the others, the Olivets, wrapped in walnut leaves, like the carrion which peasants cover with branches as it lies rotting in the hedgerow under the blazing sun.
The heat of the afternoon had softened the cheeses; the patches of mould on their crusts were melting, and glistening with tints of ruddy bronze and verdigris. Beneath their cover of leaves, the skins of the Olivets seemed to be heaving as with the slow, deep respiration of a sleeping man. A Livarot was swarming with life; and in a fragile box behind the scales a Gerome flavoured with aniseed diffused such a pestilential smell that all around it the very flies had fallen lifeless on the gray-veined slap of ruddy marble.
This Gerome was almost immediately under Mademoiselle Saget's nose; so she drew back, and leaned her head against the big sheets of white and yellow paper which were hanging in a corner.
"Yes," she repeated, with an expression of disgust, "he comes from the galleys! Ah, those Quenu-Gradelles have no reason to put on so many airs!"
Madame Lecoeur and La Sarriette, however, had burst into exclamations of astonishment: "It wasn't possible, surely! What had he done to be sent to the galleys? Could anyone, now, have ever suspected that Madame Quenu, whose virtue was the pride of the whole neighbourhood, would choose a convict for a lover?"
"Ah, but you don't understand at all!" cried the old maid impatiently. "Just listen, now, while I explain things. I was quite certain that I had seen that great lanky fellow somewhere before."
Then she proceeded to tell them Florent's story. She had recalled to mind a vague report which had circulated of a nephew of old Gradelle being transported to Cayenne for murdering six gendarmes at a barricade. She had even seen this nephew on one occasion in the Rue Pirouette. The pretended cousin was undoubtedly the same man. Then she began to bemoan her waning powers. Her memory was quite going, she said; she would soon be unable to remember anything. And she bewailed her perishing memory as bitterly as any learned man might bewail the loss of his notes representing the work of a life-time, on seeing them swept away by a gust of wind.
"Six gendarmes!" murmured La Sarriette, admiringly; "he must have a very heavy fist!"
"And he's made away with plenty of others, as well," added Mademoiselle Saget. "I shouldn't advise you to meet him at night!"
"What a villain!" stammered out Madame Lecoeur, quite terrified.
The slanting beams of the sinking sun were now enfilading the pavilion, and the odour of the cheeses became stronger than ever. That of the Marolles seemed to predominate, borne hither and thither in powerful whiffs. Then, however, the wind appeared to change, and suddenly the emanations of the Limbourgs were wafted towards the three women, pungent and bitter, like the last gasps of a dying man.
"But in that case," resumed Madame Lecoeur, "he must be fat Lisa's brother-in-law. And we thought that he was her lover!"
The women exchanged glances. This aspect of the case took them by surprise. They were loth to give up their first theory. However, La Sarriette, turning to Mademoiselle Saget, remarked: "That must have been all wrong. Besides, you yourself say that he's always running after the two Mehudin girls."
"Certainly he is," exclaimed Mademoiselle Saget sharply, fancying that her word was doubted. "He dangles about them every evening. But, after all, it's no concern of ours, is it? We are virtuous women, and what he does makes no difference to us, the horrid scoundrel!"
"No, certainly not," agreed the other two. "He's a consummate villain."
The affair was becoming tragical. Of course beautiful Lisa was now out of the question, but for this they found ample consolation in prophesying that Florent would bring about some frightful catastrophe. It was quite clear, they said, that he had got some base design in his head. When people like him escaped from gaol it was only to burn everything down; and if he had come to the markets it must assuredly be for some abominable purpose. Then they began to indulge in the wildest suppositions. The two dealers declared that they would put additional padlocks to the doors of their storerooms; and La Sarriette called to mind that a basket of peaches had been stolen from her during the previous week. Mademoiselle Saget, however, quite frightened the two others by informing them that that was not the way in which the Reds behaved; they despised such trifles as baskets of peaches; their plan was to band themselves together in companies of two or three hundred, kill everybody they came across, and then plunder and pillage at their ease. That was "politics," she said, with the superior air of one who knew what she was talking about. Madame Lecoeur felt quite ill. She already saw Florent and his accomplices hiding in the cellars, and rushing out during the night to set the markets in flames and sack Paris.
"Ah! by the way," suddenly exclaimed the old maid, "now I think of it, there's all that money of old Gradelle's! Dear me, dear me, those Quenus can't be at all at their ease!"
She now looked quite gay again. The conversation took a fresh turn, and the others fell foul of the Quenus when Mademoiselle Saget had told them the history of the treasure discovered in the salting-tub, with every particular of which she was acquainted. She was even able to inform them of the exact amount of the money found—eighty-five thousand francs—though neither Lisa nor Quenu was aware of having revealed this to a living soul. However, it was clear that the Quenus had not given the great lanky fellow his share. He was too shabbily dressed for that. Perhaps he had never even heard of the discovery of the treasure. Plainly enough, they were all thieves in his family. Then the three women bent their heads together and spoke in lower tones. They were unanimously of opinion that it might perhaps be dangerous to attack the beautiful Lisa, but it was decidedly necessary that they should settle the Red Republican's hash, so that he might no longer prey upon the purse of poor Monsieur Gavard.
At the mention of Gavard there came a pause. The gossips looked at each other with a circumspect air. And then, as they drew breath, they inhaled the odour of the Camemberts, whose gamy scent had overpowered the less penetrating emanations of the Marolles and the Limbourgs, and spread around with remarkable power. Every now and then, however, a slight whiff, a flutelike note, came from the Parmesan, while the Bries contributed a soft, musty scent, the gentle, insipid sound, as it were, of damp tambourines. Next followed an overpowering refrain from the Livarots, and afterwards the Gerome, flavoured with aniseed, kept up the symphony with a high prolonged note, like that of a vocalist during a pause in the accompaniment.
"I have seen Madame Leonce," Mademoiselle Saget at last continued, with a significant expression.
At this the two others became extremely attentive. Madame Leonce was the doorkeeper of the house where Gavard lived in the Rue de la Cossonnerie. It was an old house standing back, with its ground floor occupied by an importer of oranges and lemons, who had had the frontage coloured blue as high as the first floor. Madame Leonce acted as Gavard's housekeeper, kept the keys of his cupboards and closets, and brought him up tisane when he happened to catch cold. She was a severe-looking woman, between fifty and sixty years of age, and spoke slowly, but at endless length. Mademoiselle Saget, who went to drink coffee with her every Wednesday evening, had cultivated her friendship more closely than ever since the poultry dealer had gone to lodge in the house. They would talk about the worthy man for hours at a time. They both professed the greatest affection for him, and a keen desire to ensure his comfort and happiness.
"Yes, I have seen Madame Leonce," repeated the old maid. "We had a cup of coffee together last night. She was greatly worried. It seems that Monsieur Gavard never comes home now before one o'clock in the morning. Last Sunday she took him up some broth, as she thought he looked quite ill."
"Oh, she knows very well what she's about," exclaimed Madame Lecoeur, whom these attentions to Gavard somewhat alarmed.
Mademoiselle Saget felt bound to defend her friend. "Oh, really, you are quite mistaken," said she. "Madame Leonce is much above her position; she is quite a lady. If she wanted to enrich herself at Monsieur Gavard's expense, she might easily have done so long ago. It seems that he leaves everything lying about in the most careless fashion. It's about that, indeed, that I want to speak to you. But you'll not repeat anything I say, will you? I am telling it you in strict confidence."
Both the others swore that they would never breathe a word of what they might hear; and they craned out their necks with eager curiosity, whilst the old maid solemnly resumed: "Well, then, Monsieur Gavard has been behaving very strangely of late. He has been buying firearms—a great big pistol—one of those which revolve, you know. Madame Leonce says that things are awful, for this pistol is always lying about on the table or the mantelpiece; and she daren't dust anywhere near it. But that isn't all. His money—"
"His money!" echoed Madame Lecoeur, with blazing cheeks.
"Well, he's disposed of all his stocks and shares. He's sold everything, and keeps a great heap of gold in a cupboard."
"A heap of gold!" exclaimed La Sarriette in ecstasy.
"Yes, a great heap of gold. It covers a whole shelf, and is quite dazzling. Madame Leonce told me that one morning Gavard opened the cupboard in her presence, and that the money quite blinded her, it shone so."
There was another pause. The eyes of the three women were blinking as though the dazzling pile of gold was before them. Presently La Sarriette began to laugh.
"What a jolly time I would have with Jules if my uncle would give that money to me!" said she.
Madame Lecoeur, however, seemed quite overwhelmed by this revelation, crushed beneath the weight of the gold which she could not banish from her sight. Covetous envy thrilled her. But at last, raising her skinny arms and shrivelled hands, her finger-nails still stuffed with butter, she stammered in a voice full of bitter distress: "Oh, I mustn't think of it! It's too dreadful!"
"Well, it would all be yours, you know, if anything were to happen to Monsieur Gavard," retorted Mademoiselle Saget. "If I were in your place, I would look after my interests. That revolver means nothing good, you may depend upon it. Monsieur Gavard has got into the hands of evil counsellors; and I'm afraid it will all end badly."
Then the conversation again turned upon Florent. The three women assailed him more violently than ever. And afterwards, with perfect composure, they began to discuss what would be the result of all these dark goings-on so far as he and Gavard were concerned; certainly it would be no pleasant one if there was any gossiping. And thereupon they swore that they themselves would never repeat a word of what they knew; not, however, because that scoundrel Florent merited any consideration, but because it was necessary, at all costs, to save that worthy Monsieur Gavard from being compromised. Then they rose from their seats, and Mademoiselle Saget was burning as if to go away when the butter dealer asked her: "All the same, in case of accident, do you think that Madame Leonce can be trusted? I dare say she has the key of the cupboard."
"Well, that's more than I can tell you," replied the old maid. "I believe she's a very honest woman; but, after all, there's no telling. There are circumstances, you know, which tempt the best of people. Anyhow, I've warned you both; and you must do what you think proper."
As the three women stood there, taking leave of each other, the odour of the cheeses seemed to become more pestilential than ever. It was a cacophony of smells, ranging from the heavily oppressive odour of the Dutch cheeses and the Gruyeres to the alkaline pungency of the Olivets. From the Cantal, the Cheshire, and the goats' milk cheeses there seemed to come a deep breath like the sound of a bassoon, amidst which the sharp, sudden whiffs of the Neufchatels, the Troyes, and the Mont d'Ors contributed short, detached notes. And then the different odours appeared to mingle one with another, the reek of the Limbourgs, the Port Saluts, the Geromes, the Marolles, the Livarots, and the Pont l'Eveques uniting in one general, overpowering stench sufficient to provoke asphyxia. And yet it almost seemed as though it were not the cheeses but the vile words of Madame Lecoeur and Mademoiselle Saget that diffused this awful odour.
"I'm very much obliged to you, indeed I am," said the butter dealer. "If ever I get rich, you shall not find yourself forgotten."
The old maid still lingered in the stall. Taking up a Bondon, she turned it round, and put it down on the slab again. Then she asked its price.
"To me!" she added, with a smile.
"Oh, nothing to you," replied Madame Lecoeur. "I'll make you a present of it." And again she exclaimed: "Ah, if I were only rich!"
Mademoiselle Saget thereupon told her that some day or other she would be rich. The Bondon had already disappeared within the old maid's bag. And now the butter dealer returned to the cellar, while Mademoiselle Saget escorted La Sarriette back to her stall. On reaching it they talked for a moment or two about Monsieur Jules. The fruits around them diffused a fresh scent of summer.
"It smells much nicer here than at your aunt's," said the old maid. "I felt quite ill a little time ago. I can't think how she manages to exist there. But here it's very sweet and pleasant. It makes you look quite rosy, my dear."
La Sarriette began to laugh, for she was fond of compliments. Then she served a lady with a pound of mirabelle plums, telling her that they were as sweet as sugar.
"I should like to buy some of those mirabelles too," murmured Mademoiselle Saget, when the lady had gone away; "only I want so few. A lone woman, you know."
"Take a handful of them," exclaimed the pretty brunette. "That won't ruin me. Send Jules back to me if you see him, will you? You'll most likely find him smoking his cigar on the first bench to the right as you turn out of the covered way."
Mademoiselle Saget distended her fingers as widely as possible in order to take a handful of mirabelles, which joined the Bondon in the bag. Then she pretended to leave the market, but in reality made a detour by one of the covered ways, thinking, as she walked slowly along, that the mirabelles and Bondon would not make a very substantial dinner. When she was unable, during her afternoon perambulations, to wheedle stallkeepers into filling her bag for her, she was reduced to dining off the merest scraps. So she now slyly made her way back to the butter pavilions, where, on the side of the Rue Berger, at the back of the offices of the oyster salesmen, there were some stalls at which cooked meat was sold. Every morning little closed box-like carts, lined with zinc and furnished with ventilators, drew up in front of the larger Parisian kitchens and carried away the leavings of the restaurants, the embassies, and State Ministries. These leavings were conveyed to the market cellars and there sorted. By nine o'clock plates of food were displayed for sale at prices ranging from three to five sous, their contents comprising slices of meat, scraps of game, heads and tails of fishes, bits of galantine, stray vegetables, and, by way of dessert, cakes scarcely cut into, and other confectionery. Poor starving wretches, scantily-paid clerks, and women shivering with fever were to be seen crowding around, and the street lads occasionally amused themselves by hooting the pale-faced individuals, known to be misers, who only made their purchases after slyly glancing about them to see that they were not observed.[*] Mademoiselle Saget wriggled her way to a stall, the keeper of which boasted that the scraps she sold came exclusively from the Tuileries. One day, indeed, she had induced the old maid to buy a slice of leg of mutton by informing that it had come from the plate of the Emperor himself; and this slice of mutton, eaten with no little pride, had been a soothing consolation to Mademoiselle Saget's vanity. The wariness of her approach to the stall was, moreover, solely caused by her desire to keep well with the neighbouring shop people, whose premises she was eternally haunting without ever buying anything. Her usual tactics were to quarrel with them as soon as she had managed to learn their histories, when she would bestow her patronage upon a fresh set, desert it in due course, and then gradually make friends again with those with whom she had quarrelled. In this way she made the complete circuit of the market neighbourhood, ferreting about in every shop and stall. Anyone would have imagined that she consumed an enormous amount of provisions, whereas, in point of fact, she lived solely upon presents and the few scraps which she was compelled to buy when people were not in the giving vein.
[*] The dealers in these scraps are called bijoutiers, or jewellers, whilst the scraps themselves are known as harlequins, the idea being that they are of all colours and shapes when mingled together, thus suggesting harlequin's variegated attire.—Translator.
On that particular evening there was only a tall old man standing in front of the stall. He was sniffing at a plate containing a mixture of meat and fish. Mademoiselle Saget, in her turn, began to sniff at a plate of cold fried fish. The price of it was three sous, but, by dint of bargaining, she got it for two. The cold fish then vanished into the bag. Other customers now arrived, and with a uniform impulse lowered their noses over the plates. The smell of the stall was very disgusting, suggestive alike of greasy dishes and a dirty sink.[*]
[*] Particulars of the strange and repulsive trade in harlequins, which even nowadays is not extinct, will be found in Privat d'Anglemont's well-known book Paris Anecdote, written at the very period with which M. Zola deals in the present work. My father, Henry Vizetelly, also gave some account of it in his Glances Back through Seventy Years, in a chapter describing the odd ways in which certain Parisians contrive to get a living.—Translator.
"Come and see me to-morrow," the stallkeeper called out to the old maid, "and I'll put something nice on one side for you. There's going to be a grand dinner at the Tuileries to-night."
Mademoiselle Saget was just promising to come, when, happening to turn round, she discovered Gavard looking at her and listening to what she was saying. She turned very red, and, contracting her skinny shoulders, hurried away, affecting not to recognise him. Gavard, however, followed her for a few yards, shrugging his shoulders and muttering to himself that he was no longer surprised at the old shrew's malice, now he knew that "she poisoned herself with the filth carted away from the Tuileries."
On the very next morning vague rumours began to circulate in the markets. Madame Lecoeur and La Sarriette were in their own fashion keeping the oaths of silence they had taken. For her own part, Mademoiselle Saget warily held her tongue, leaving the two others to circulate the story of Florent's antecedents. At first only a few meagre details were hawked about in low tones; then various versions of the facts got into circulation, incidents were exaggerated, and gradually quite a legend was constructed, in which Florent played the part of a perfect bogey man. He had killed ten gendarmes at the barricade in the Rue Greneta, said some; he had returned to France on a pirate ship whose crew scoured the seas to murder everyone they came across, said others; whilst a third set declared that ever since his arrival he had been observed prowling about at nighttime with suspicious-looking characters, of whom he was undoubtedly the leader. Soon the imaginative market women indulged in the highest flights of fancy, revelled in the most melodramatic ideas. There was talk of a band of smugglers plying their nefarious calling in the very heart of Paris, and of a vast central association formed for systematically robbing the stalls in the markets. Much pity was expressed for the Quenu-Gradelles, mingled with malicious allusions to their uncle's fortune. That fortune was an endless subject of discussion. The general opinion was that Florent had returned to claim his share of the treasure; however, as no good reason was forthcoming to explain why the division had not taken place already, it was asserted that Florent was waiting for some opportunity which might enable him to pocket the whole amount. The Quenu-Gradelles would certainly be found murdered some morning, it was said; and a rumour spread that dreadful quarrels already took place every night between the two brothers and beautiful Lisa.
When these stories reached the ears of the beautiful Norman, she shrugged her shoulders and burst out laughing.
"Get away with you!" she cried, "you don't know him. Why, the dear fellow's as gentle as a lamb."
She had recently refused the hand of Monsieur Lebigre, who had at last ventured upon a formal proposal. For two months past he had given the Mehudins a bottle of some liqueur every Sunday. It was Rose who brought it, and she was always charged with a compliment for La Normande, some pretty speech which she faithfully repeated, without appearing in the slightest degree embarrassed by the peculiar commission. When Monsieur Lebigre was rejected, he did not pine, but to show that he took no offence and was still hopeful, he sent Rose on the following Sunday with two bottles of champagne and a large bunch of flowers. She gave them into the handsome fish-girl's own hands, repeating, as she did so, the wine dealer's prose madrigal:
"Monsieur Lebigre begs you to drink this to his health, which has been greatly shaken by you know what. He hopes that you will one day be willing to cure him, by being for him as pretty and as sweet as these flowers."
La Normande was much amused by the servant's delighted air. She kissed her as she spoke to her of her master, and asked her if he wore braces, and snored at nights. Then she made her take the champagne and flowers back with her. "Tell Monsieur Lebigre," said she, "that he's not to send you here again. It quite vexes me to see you coming here so meekly, with your bottles under your arms."
"Oh, he wishes me to come," replied Rose, as she went away. "It is wrong of you to distress him. He is a very handsome man."
La Normande, however, was quite conquered by Florent's affectionate nature. She continued to follow Muche's lessons of an evening in the lamplight, indulging the while in a dream of marrying this man who was so kind to children. She would still keep her fish stall, while he would doubtless rise to a position of importance in the administrative staff of the markets. This dream of hers, however, was scarcely furthered by the tutor's respectful bearing towards her. He bowed to her, and kept himself at a distance, when she have liked to laugh with him, and love him as she knew how to love. But it was just this covert resistance on Florent's part which continually brought her back to the dream of marrying him. She realised that he lived in a loftier sphere than her own; and by becoming his wife she imagined that her vanity would reap no little satisfaction.
She was greatly surprised when she learned the history of the man she loved. He had never mentioned a word of those things to her; and she scolded him about it. His extraordinary adventures only increased her tenderness for him, and for evenings together she made him relate all that had befallen him. She trembled with fear lest the police should discover him; but he reassured her, saying that the matter was now too old for the police to trouble their heads about it. One evening he told her of the woman on the Boulevard Montmartre, the woman in the pink bonnet, whose blood had dyed his hands. He still frequently thought of that poor creature. His anguish-stricken mind had often dwelt upon her during the clear nights he had passed in Cayenne; and he had returned to France with a wild dream of meeting her again on some footway in the bright sunshine, even though he could still feel her corpse-like weight across his legs. And yet, he thought, she might perhaps have recovered. At times he received quite a shock while he was walking through the streets, on fancying that he recognised her; and he followed pink bonnets and shawl-draped shoulders with a wildly beating heart. When he closed his eyes he could see her walking, and advancing towards him; but she let her shawl slip down, showing the two red stains on her chemisette; and then he saw that her face was pale as wax, and that her eyes were blank, and her lips distorted by pain. For a long time he suffered from not knowing her name, from being forced to look upon her as a mere shadow, whose recollection filled him with sorrow. Whenever any idea of woman crossed his mind it was always she that rose up before him, as the one pure, tender wife. He often found himself fancying that she might be looking for him on that boulevard where she had fallen dead, and that if she had met him a few seconds sooner she would have given him a life of joy. And he wished for no other wife; none other existed for him. When he spoke of her, his voice trembled to such a degree that La Normande, her wits quickened by her love, guessed his secret, and felt jealous.
"Oh, it's really much better that you shouldn't see her again," she said maliciously. "She can't look particularly nice by this time."
Florent turned pale with horror at the vision which these words evoked. His love was rotting in her grave. He could not forgive La Normande's savage cruelty, which henceforth made him see the grinning jaws and hollow eyes of a skeleton within that lovely pink bonnet. Whenever the fish-girl tried to joke with him on the subject he turned quite angry, and silenced her with almost coarse language.
That, however, which especially surprised the beautiful Norman in these revelations was the discovery that she had been quite mistaken in supposing that she was enticing a lover away from handsome Lisa. This so diminished her feeling of triumph, that for a week or so her love for Florent abated. She consoled herself, however, with the story of the inheritance, no longer calling Lisa a strait-laced prude, but a thief who kept back her brother-in-law's money, and assumed sanctimonious airs to deceive people. Every evening, while Muche took his writing lesson, the conversation turned upon old Gradelle's treasure.
"Did anyone ever hear of such an idea?" the fish-girl would exclaim, with a laugh. "Did the old man want to salt his money, since he put it in a salting-tub? Eighty-five thousand francs! That's a nice sum of money! And, besides, the Quenus, no doubt, lied about it—there was perhaps two or three times as much. Ah, if I were in your place, I shouldn't lose any time about claiming my share; indeed I shouldn't."
"I've no need of anything," was Florent's invariable answer. "I shouldn't know what to do with the money if I had it."
"Oh, you're no man!" cried La Normande, losing all control over herself. "It's pitiful! Can't you see that the Quenus are laughing at you? That great fat thing passes all her husband's old clothes over to you. I'm not saying this to hurt your feelings, but everybody makes remarks about it. Why, the whole neighbourhood has seen the greasy pair of trousers, which you're now wearing, on your brother's legs for three years and more! If I were in your place I'd throw their dirty rags in their faces, and insist upon my rights. Your share comes to forty-two thousand five hundred francs, doesn't it? Well, I shouldn't go out of the place till I'd got forty-two thousand five hundred francs."
It was useless for Florent to explain to her that his sister-in-law had offered to pay him his share, that she was taking care of it for him, and that it was he himself who had refused to receive it. He entered into the most minute particulars, seeking to convince her of the Quenus' honesty, but she sarcastically replied: "Oh, yes, I dare say! I know all about their honesty. That fat thing folds it up every morning and puts it away in her wardrobe for fear it should get soiled. Really, I quite pity you, my poor friend. It's easy to gull you, for you can't see any further than a child of five. One of these days she'll simply put your money in her pocket, and you'll never look on it again. Shall I go, now, and claim your share for you, just to see what she says? There'd be some fine fun, I can tell you! I'd either have the money, or I'd break everything in the house—I swear I would!"
"No, no, it's no business of yours," Florent replied, quite alarmed. "I'll see about it; I may possibly be wanting some money soon."
At this La Normande assumed an air of doubt, shrugged her shoulders, and told him that he was really too chicken-hearted. Her one great aim now was to embroil him with the Quenu-Gradelles, and she employed every means she could think of to effect her purpose, both anger and banter, as well as affectionate tenderness. She also cherished another design. When she had succeeded in marrying Florent, she would go and administer a sound cuffing to beautiful Lisa, if the latter did not yield up the money. As she lay awake in her bed at night she pictured every detail of the scene. She saw herself sitting down in the middle of the pork shop in the busiest part of the day, and making a terrible fuss. She brooded over this idea to such an extent, it obtained such a hold upon her, that she would have been willing to marry Florent simply in order to be able to go and demand old Gradelle's forty-two thousand five hundred francs.
Old Madame Mehudin, exasperated by La Normande's dismissal of Monsieur Lebigre, proclaimed everywhere that her daughter was mad, and that the "long spindle-shanks" must have administered some insidious drug to her. When she learned the Cayenne story, her anger was terrible. She called Florent a convict and murderer, and said it was no wonder that his villainy had kept him lank and flat. Her versions of Florent's biography were the most horrible of all that were circulated in the neighbourhood. At home she kept a moderately quiet tongue in her head, and restricted herself to muttered indignation, and a show of locking up the drawer where the silver was kept whenever Florent arrived. One day, however, after a quarrel with her elder daughter, she exclaimed:
"Things can't go on much longer like this! It is that vile man who is setting you against me. Take care that you don't try me too far, or I'll go and denounce him to the police. I will, as true as I stand here!"
"You'll denounce him!" echoed La Normande, trembling violently, and clenching her fists. "You'd better not! Ah, if you weren't my mother——"
At this, Claire, who was a spectator of the quarrel, began to laugh, with a nervous laughter that seemed to rasp her throat. For some time past she had been gloomier and more erratic than ever, invariably showing red eyes and a pale face.
"Well, what would you do?" she asked. "Would you give her a cuffing? Perhaps you'd like to give me, your sister, one as well? I dare say it will end in that. But I'll clear the house of him. I'll go to the police to save mother the trouble."
Then, as La Normande almost choked with the angry threats that rose to her throat, the younger girl added: "I'll spare you the exertion of beating me. I'll throw myself into the river as I come back over the bridge."
Big tears were streaming from her eyes; and she rushed off to her bedroom, banging the doors violently behind her. Old Madame Mehudin said nothing more about denouncing Florent. Muche, however, told La Normande that he met his grandma talking with Monsieur Lebigre in every corner of the neighbourhood.
The rivalry between the beautiful Norman and the beautiful Lisa now assumed a less aggressive but more disturbing character. In the afternoon, when the red-striped canvas awning was drawn down in front of the pork shop, the fish-girl would remark that the big fat thing felt afraid, and was concealing herself. She was also much exasperated by the occasional lowering of the window-blind, on which was pictured a hunting-breakfast in a forest glade, with ladies and gentlemen in evening dress partaking of a red pasty, as big as themselves, on the yellow grass.
Beautiful Lisa, however, was by no means afraid. As soon as the sun began to sink she drew up the blind; and, as she sat knitting behind her counter, she serenely scanned the market square, where numerous urchins were poking about in the soil under the gratings which protected the roots of the plane-trees, while porters smoked their pipes on the benches along the footway, at either end of which was an advertisement column covered with theatrical posters, alternately green, yellow, red, and blue, like some harlequin's costume. And while pretending to watch the passing vehicles, Lisa would really be scrutinising the beautiful Norman. She might occasionally be seen bending forward, as though her eyes were following the Bastille and Place Wagram omnibus to the Pointe Saint Eustache, where it always stopped for a time. But this was only a manoeuvre to enable her to get a better view of the fish-girl, who, as a set-off against the blind, retorted by covering her head and fish with large sheets of brown paper, on the pretext of warding off the rays of the setting sun. The advantage at present was on Lisa's side, for as the time for striking the decisive blow approached she manifested the calmest serenity of bearing, whereas her rival, in spite of all her efforts to attain the same air of distinction, always lapsed into some piece of gross vulgarity, which she afterwards regretted. La Normande's ambition was to look "like a lady." Nothing irritated her more than to hear people extolling the good manners of her rival. This weak point of hers had not escaped old Madame Mehudin's observation, and she now directed all her attacks upon it.
"I saw Madame Quenu standing at her door this evening," she would say sometimes. "It is quite amazing how well she wears. And she's so refined-looking, too; quite the lady, indeed. It's the counter that does it, I'm sure. A fine counter gives a woman such a respectable look."
In this remark there was a veiled allusion to Monsieur Lebigre's proposal. The beautiful Norman would make no reply; but for a moment or two she would seem deep in thought. In her mind's eye she saw herself behind the counter of the wine shop at the other corner of the street, forming a pendent, as it were, to beautiful Lisa. It was this that first shook her love for Florent.
To tell the truth, it was now becoming a very difficult thing to defend Florent. The whole neighbourhood was in arms against him; it seemed as though everyone had an immediate interest in exterminating him. Some of the market people swore that he had sold himself to the police; while others asserted that he had been seen in the butter-cellar, attempting to make holes in the wire grating, with the intention of tossing lighted matches through them. There was a vast increase of slander, a perfect flood of abuse, the source of which could not be exactly determined. The fish pavilion was the last one to join in the revolt against the inspector. The fish-wives liked Florent on account of his gentleness, and for some time they defended him; but, influenced by the stallkeepers of the butter and fruit pavilions, they at last gave way. Then hostilities began afresh between these huge, swelling women and the lean and lank inspector. He was lost in the whirl of the voluminous petticoats and buxom bodices which surged furiously around his scraggy shoulders. However, he understood nothing, but pursued his course towards the realisation of his one haunting idea.
At every hour of the day, and in every corner of the market, Mademoiselle Saget's black bonnet was now to be seen in the midst of this outburst of indignation. Her little pale face seemed to multiply. She had sworn a terrible vengeance against the company which assembled in Monsieur Lebigre's little cabinet. She accused them of having circulated the story that she lived on waste scraps of meat. The truth was that old Gavard had told the others one evening that the "old nanny-goat" who came to play the spy upon them gorged herself with the filth which the Bonapartist clique tossed away. Clemence felt quite ill on hearing this, and Robine hurriedly gulped down a draught of beer, as though to wash his throat. In Gavard's opinion, the scraps of meat left on the Emperor's plate were so much political ordure, the putrid remnants of all the filth of the reign. Thenceforth the party at Monsieur Lebigre's looked on Mademoiselle Saget as a creature whom no one could touch except with tongs. She was regarded as some unclean animal that battened upon corruption. Clemence and Gavard circulated the story so freely in the markets that the old maid found herself seriously injured in her intercourse with the shopkeepers, who unceremoniously bade her go off to the scrap-stalls when she came to haggle and gossip at their establishments without the least intention of buying anything. This cut her off from her sources of information; and sometimes she was altogether ignorant of what was happening. She shed tears of rage, and in one such moment of anger she bluntly said to La Sarriette and Madame Lecoeur: "You needn't give me any more hints: I'll settle your Gavard's hash for him now—that I will!"
The two women were rather startled, but refrained from all protestation. The next day, however, Mademoiselle Saget had calmed down, and again expressed much tender-hearted pity for that poor Monsieur Gavard who was so badly advised, and was certainly hastening to his ruin.
Gavard was undoubtedly compromising himself. Ever since the conspiracy had begun to ripen he had carried the revolver, which caused Madame Leonce so much alarm, in his pocket wherever he went. It was a big, formidable-looking weapon, which he had bought of the principal gunmaker in Paris. He exhibited it to all the women in the poultry market, like a schoolboy who has got some prohibited novel hidden in his desk. First he would allow the barrel to peer out of his pocket, and call attention to it with a wink. Then he affected a mysterious reticence, indulged in vague hints and insinuations—played, in short, the part of a man who revelled in feigning fear. The possession of this revolver gave him immense importance, placed him definitely amongst the dangerous characters of Paris. Sometimes, when he was safe inside his stall, he would consent to take it out of his pocket, and exhibit it to two or three of the women. He made them stand before him so as to conceal him with their petticoats, and then he brandished the weapon, cocked the lock, caused the breech to revolve, and took aim at one of the geese or turkeys that were hanging in the stall. He was immensely delighted at the alarm manifested by the women; but eventually reassured them by stating that the revolver was not loaded. However, he carried a supply of cartridges about with him, in a case which he opened with the most elaborate precautions. When he had allowed his friends to feel the weight of the cartridges, he would again place both weapon and ammunition in his pockets. And afterwards, crossing his arms over his breast, he would chatter away jubilantly for hours.
"A man's a man when he's got a weapon like that," he would say with a swaggering air. "I don't care a fig now for the gendarmes. A friend and I went to try it last Sunday on the plain of Saint Denis. Of course, you know, a man doesn't tell everyone that he's got a plaything of that sort. But, ah! my dears, we fired at a tree, and hit it every time. Ah, you'll see, you'll see. You'll hear of Anatole one of these days, I can tell you."
He had bestowed the name of Anatole upon the revolver; and he carried things so far that in a week's time both weapon and cartridges were known to all the women in the pavilion. His friendship for Florent seemed to them suspicious; he was too sleek and rich to be visited with the hatred that was manifested towards the inspector; still, he lost the esteem of the shrewder heads amongst his acquaintances, and succeeded in terrifying the timid ones. This delighted him immensely.
"It is very imprudent for a man to carry firearms about with him," said Mademoiselle Saget. "Monsieur Gavard's revolver will end by playing him a nasty trick."
Gavard now showed the most jubilant bearing at Monsieur Lebigre's. Florent, since ceasing to take his meals with the Quenus, had come almost to live in the little "cabinet." He breakfasted, dined, and constantly shut himself up there. In fact he had converted the place almost into a sort of private room of his own, where he left his old coats and books and papers lying about. Monsieur Lebigre had offered no objection to these proceedings; indeed, he had even removed one of the tables to make room for a cushioned bench, on which Florent could have slept had he felt so inclined. When the inspector manifested any scruples about taking advantage of Monsieur Lebigre's kindness, the latter told him to do as he pleased, saying that the whole house was at his service. Logre also manifested great friendship for him, and even constituted himself his lieutenant. He was constantly discussing affairs with him, rendering an account of the steps he was supposed to take, and furnishing the names of newly affiliated associates. Logre, indeed, had now assumed the duties of organiser; on him rested the task of bringing the various plotters together, forming the different sections, and weaving each mesh of the gigantic net into which Paris was to fall at a given signal. Florent meantime remained the leader, the soul of the conspiracy.